Woodworkers craft final resting places for veterans

By EDDIE DANIELS | Tampa Tribune, Fla. | Published: May 26, 2013

LAND O' LAKES, Fla. —  The boxes are simple.

Made of donated wood — birch, maple, or poplar — the containers are generally 9 inches in length, 7 inches wide and about 7 inches tall.

Though small in size, the urns are a large gesture by the people who build them.

The effort dubbed the Veterans Urn Project is a collaboration of members of the Woodcrafters Club of Tampa, Woodcrafters Club of St. Petersburg and the AMVETS Post 9 in Odessa.

The venture, a brainchild of Tom Jones, president of the Woodcrafters Club of Tampa, provides a final resting place for the remains of indigent veterans.

“They are more than a box. They're a heck of a lot more than a box,” said Bob Patrick, chairman of the Veterans Urn Project and commander of the AMVETS Post 9 in Odessa.

“You could build a box to put mail in and you would probably take that box, even if it had a mark on it, and use it,” Patrick said. “But the guys who are building these right now, including myself, we want almost perfection if we can get it because this is the final resting place for someone. Unfortunately, their money ran out long before their last breath did and the thought of us putting them into something like (our urns) instead of putting them in a cardboard box is very rewarding.”

The project got its start in 2012. In June of that year, news reports surfaced about a soldier, Pfc. Lawrence Davis Jr., who was buried in a cardboard box in a grave at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. Davis, 85, died alone in 2004.

That sparked outrage among many groups, prompting a burial in a casket with full military honors in July.

It prompted Jones to think about a different way of putting his wood-carving talents to use.

A short time later, he went camping with his brother-in-law, who works at a Largo funeral home. His brother-in-law told him about the urns and showed him photos and encouraged him to try his hand at making one.

After the camping trip, Jones brought the idea to the group. “I made two of them right away and brought them to the club,” Jones said.

The club agreed to take on the project.

Urns have been sent, free of charge, to locations across the country, including Maine, Hawaii and Washington state. Interest has picked up, and woodcrafting clubs in Virginia and The Villages have inquired, among others, about participating.

Stephen Cook, a senior social worker for HPH Hospice, heard about the program and met with Patrick, a Land O' Lakes resident who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy.

The two began to work in conjunction with the hospice's “We Honor Veterans” program, and Patrick donated about a dozen of the wooden urns from the project.

“I think what it does is it gives (the families of indigent veterans) a sense of dignity and respect knowing that they have a piece of craftsmanship to lay their loved one to rest in more than anything else,” Cook said.

The group has an inventory of about 130 urns, each of them bearing the insignia of a branch of the military. That's thanks to a Zephyrhills man, Ross Strickland, who donates the use of his laser engraver. He inscribes the military emblem on each of the urns, Jones said, free of charge.

“Every single urn that we've made, he's engraved,” Jones said. “He just volunteers to do it.”

Jones said he has fielded calls and received emails from all over the country. The former Fairfax, Va., police officer remains impressed with the level of attention they have received.

“With my background, I've seen the worst of people, and at times you get depressed because you wonder if there's any good left in the world,” Jones said. “When you get this kind of response from people, you realize there still are a lot of good people out there who are, I guess, the silent majority.”

The group's goal is to have chapters across the country making the urns and providing them to those who are in need, Jones said.

To further honor veterans, HPH Hospice, Pasco's original not-for-profit hospice established in 1984, will perform a pinning ceremony at Southern Pines Healthcare center, 6140 Congress St., New Port Richey, Monday at 10:30 a.m.

Veterans will be pinned by other veterans and handed a card with their names and a note thanking them for their service.

“It's just to say thank you for everything you've done for us,” said Katy Geschke, volunteer program manager for HPH.